Outside the Box

a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2015

Each semester, I show the movie, All the President’s Men, in news writing class. It’s the story of two Washington Post reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who uncover illegal activities in the Nixon administration.

Their reporting led to the arrest of White House officials and the president’s resignation.

Their editor, Ben Bradlee, who died last year, stuck with the story and the reporters, despite threats and intimidation from powerful government officials.

Journalism is not a popularity contest. In pursuing facts, journalists frequently come under fire, literally and metaphorically. Organizations, governments and individuals often blame the messenger.

Or kill the messenger, as in the beheadings of journalists: the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl in 2002 to the recent murders of Japanese and American journalists by members of the self-declared Islamic State.

The students at The Campus at Allegheny College have already experienced some of the harassment, threats and scorn that professional journalists encounter.

In my two and half years at Allegheny, The Campus kiosks that display the newspapers have been vandalized multiple times. Newspapers, a kiosk and distribution racks have been stolen. A student spit on a student journalist walking to class in the aftermath of one unpopular, yet accurate story. After that story, students entered the newsroom and tossed it while a student journalist had 9-1-1 on speed dial. Once, the threats against a student journalist were so egregious that the students’ parents were going to remove the student from campus and I alerted campus security.

Last semester, the administration asked The Campus staff to remove a story from its website. The story and quotes were accurate. The editors cited journalistic integrity and the law in their refusal to remove the story. This semester, the staff received another takedown demand, from a student, along with threats of legal action.

In each instance, the students and I have the opportunity to learn from these situations. We review the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. We consult with the Student Press Law Center. The students respond with professionalism and thoughtfulness, often in the face of tough pressures and uncivil accusations and language.

As a matter of policy, the paper runs corrections when there are factual errors and the staff corrects the errors online, making note of the updated text. The student journalists also encourage dis to write a letter to the editor or an opinion piece to express their views.

Each challenge also offers a chance to raise awareness and educate people about the rights and responsibilities of the press and its journalists.

The Campus staff has been accused of slander. Slander is verbal defamation, so a print story cannot be slanderous. They’ve been accused of libel. Libel is the publication—in words, photos, pictures or symbols—of false statements of fact that harm another’s reputation, according to the Student Press Law Center. Stealing newspapers is considered prior restraint under the law. Forcing a journalist to take down a story without cause is also prior restraint and censorship.

The students understand the risks of standing on principle. They risk losing funding. They risk the scorn of their peers, professors and administrators. They risk threats and intimidation. As most journalists do during their careers.

On Saturday, I watched the movie Selma in Shafer Auditorium.

Martin Luther King, Jr. understood the power of a free press and the role it plays in our democracy. When President Lyndon Johnson wouldn’t enact voting rights legislation, King took action. In Selma.

In the film, he said he wanted the events to be on the front page of the newspaper when it hit the president’s desk each morning.

When the protesters began the march across Edward Mettus Bridge, reporters, photographers, broadcasters and TV cameras were waiting. The journalists documented the police brutality and unwarranted violence against people asserting their rights to peaceful protest and assembly.

In one scene, the actor portraying New York Times reporter Ray Reed calls in the details of the story from a phone booth, the tear gas dissipating in the air.

In the film, King and his aides note that the pictures were going around the world. That the NBC broadcast would reach 70 million homes.

With Selma and the war in Vietnam, journalists brought the news, the violence and the injustice into the living rooms and kitchens of Americans across the country. Confronted with the facts and images, citizens could no longer sit on the sidelines or feign ignorance. The press coverage of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement galvanized Americans who took action and helped change the course of history.

As in All the Presidents Men and Selma, journalists shine a light in dark places. They bear witness. They record and report stories—at times at great risk.

There is a big difference between professional journalists and The Campus staff. At The Campus, the journalists are students. They are learning. They deserve the same rights of all students at Allegheny: the right to learn in a safe and civil environment.

Allegheny College has a new minor: journalism in the public interest. Public interest is a crucial component of the minor—and all journalism. The student journalists are learning and striving to practice journalism in the public interest.

They will make mistakes, as we all do. They realize they may lose funds, friends and favor in the course of their work. They have shown they will not sacrifice their self-respect nor will they compromise the paper’s integrity. They take great pride in their service to the campus and Meadville communities.

This year at Allegheny, we celebrate the college’s bicentennial and the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. On March 6-7, 2015, Allegheny hosts a journalism conference, “Honoring Ida: Celebrating the Legacies of Ida Tarbell and Ida B. Wells-Barnett.”

More than a century before Selma and Watergate, these women were also threatened and maligned in the course of their work. And their journalism—their pursuit and publication of the facts—also changed the course of history.

No woman on The Campus staff is yet the next Ida Tarbell or Ida B. Wells-Barnett. One day.

No man on the staff is yet the next Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein. One day.

The late Ben Bradlee said it well.

“We’ve got a lot of jobs to do but one of them is not be loved. We don’t have to be loved. We have to be respected, I think.”

To learn more, about journalism ethics and law, visit: www.spj.org; www.splc.org

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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